Lost historical landmarks of Saigon


Saigon’s appearance has changed dramatically through more than 300 eventful years of its existence. Unfortunately, that means the number of Saigon’s lost landmarks are a lot more than a few.

To help you have a better image of what the city looked like in the past, we have gathered a list of some lost historical landmarks of Saigon and what stands in their place today.


1. The tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine – now a busy roundabout


Pigneau de Behaine Tomb
Pigneau de Béhaine’s Tomb in 1866.
Image credit: manhhai

Pigneau de Béhaine was a French priest who helped Emperor Nguyễn Ánh, known as Gia Long since 1802, build his empire. After de Béhaine’s death from a disease in 1799, Nguyễn Ánh had a tomb built for him near Tân Sơn Nhất, Gia Định.

Pigneau de Behaine Tomb - Inside
The seal of Pigneau de Béhaine in the altar house.
Image credit: manhhai

Though Pigneau de Béhaine was a Frenchman, his tomb had architecture similar to tombs of of the Vietnamese elite at that time. In fact, it included the main altar house with a complex system of wooden pillars and roof beams, and a ceramic tiled roof decorated with Asian dragon figures. 

In front of the altar house was a huge stone screen celebrating Pigneau de Béhaine’s support towards the Nguyễn Dynasty. As described by the scholar Phạm Quỳnh, Pigneau de Béhaine’s stone tomb was placed at the altar house. On its left and right were the smaller tombs of priests Charbonnier and Miche respectively that were added later.

Lang Cha Ca Roundabout
The location of this tomb is now a big roundabout with a globe in the middle.
Image credit: VnExpress

In 1983, the tomb was demolished due to a new urban plan. The priests’ remains were returned to the French Embassy. Then the area where the tomb once stood was then renovated into a roundabout. 

Though the tomb is no longer there, the locals still call the roundabout Lăng Cha Cả, or the Great Priest Roundabout.


2. Marais Boresse – now Saigon’s symbolic marketplace


Marais Boresse Saigon
Marais Boress was filled with swamps and cottages. This part of Marais Boresse may be Quách Thị Trang roundabout today.
Image credit: manhhai

Today, there is nothing left from the Marais Boresse. However, the transformation from this large swamp into a symbolic market gives us an impression of how the city has developed over the years.

For nearly a century after the French had occupied Gia Định, now known as Saigon, in 1859, the area that would be Hồ Chí Minh City was scattered with ponds and swamps. These swamps were so large that they separated Saigon and Cholon into two separate metropolises. 

Marais Boresse, or ao Bồ-rệt in Vietnamese, was a giant swamp in the middle of Saigon at the time. This was actually a slum with poor living conditions. While in the daylight, it seemed like an abandoned land, it became a lively area at night with gobs of street food stalls.

Bến Thành Market
Bến Thành Market nowadays
Image credit: VnExpress

In the 1890s, the colonial government decided to redevelop Marais Boresse. However, this project was delayed for years due to a funding shortage. The swamps were filled gradually in the 1900s to build new streets. 

From 1911 to 1914, a new market was built in the middle of the filled Marais Boresse area to replace the old market on Boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ Street today). The new market was called Chợ Mới (literally New Market) or Bến Thành. Indeed, it was French urban planning that turned the flophouses around the former swampland into a significant landmark.


3. Đêm Màu Hồng Club – now a modern skyscraper


Hotel Catinat Saigon
Hotel Catinat as seen from Nguyễn Huệ Street
Image credit: manhhai

Our picture of the entertainment in southern Vietnam before 1975 will not be complete if it doesn’t include musical nightclubs. Among these clubs, Đêm Màu Hồng, Vietnamese for The Pink Night, stood out as the most significant one.

After the Geneva Accord divided Vietnam into two parts in 1954, many artists, particularly singers, musicians, and music composers moved southwards. In their new land, they started to form dancing clubs. 

However, due to then-South Vietnam’s President Ngô Đình Diệm’s ban on public dancing activities in the 1960s, these clubs turned into singing venues. The Saigonese at that time gradually formed a habit of going to nightclubs to listen to their favourite singers.

Thang Long Band
Thăng Long Band was one of the main attractions at Đêm Màu Hồng Nighclub.
– Standing: Phạm Duy, Hoài Bắc (Phạm Đình Chương), Hoài Trung.
– Seated : Thái Hằng, Khánh Ngọc, and Thái Thanh.
Image credit: Nhạc Xưa

Being part of this trend, Đêm Màu Hồng club welcomed big audiences every night. Established in 1967 by Hanoian musician Phạm Đình Chương, Đêm Màu Hồng was named after one of his songs. The club was located inside the Catinat Hotel with two facades at 36 Nguyễn Huệ Street and 69 Tự Do Street (renamed as Đồng Khởi Street after 1975). 

In the club, people could enjoy many genres of music from traditional Vietnamese music, rumba (now commonly referred to as bolero), and even the sensational rock music of that time.

The Phoenix Band Saigon
Phượng Hoàng (Phoenix), the first Vietnamese rock band, was dubbed as Saigon’s Beatles by their fans.
Image credit: Thanh Niên

Đêm Màu Hồng also introduced many legendary singers and bands such as Thái Thanh, Hoài Bắc, Hoài Trung (Phạm Đình Chương himself), Thái Hằng, Phạm Duy, and so on. Đêm Màu Hồng also gave Vietnam its first ever rock band named Phượng Hoàng (Phoenix) in 1971. 

Some members of this band, such as Lê Hựu Hà, Nguyễn Trung Cang, and Elvis Phương, have since become household names.

Bitexco, Saigon Times Square, and Vietcombank Towers
The Catinat Hotel was replaced by Saigon Times Square Building (centre).
Image credit: VnExpress

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, all nightclubs in Saigon came to a halt. Đêm Màu Hồng was not an exception. Catinat Hotel, where it was located, was demolished in 2008 to make place for the new Saigon Times Square.

YÊU NGƯỜI YÊU ĐỜI (GUITAR) LÊ HỰU HÀ x ELVIS PHƯƠNG
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YÊU NGƯỜI YÊU ĐỜI (GUITAR) LÊ HỰU HÀ x ELVIS PHƯƠNG

YÊU NGƯỜI YÊU ĐỜI (GUITAR) LÊ HỰU HÀ x ELVIS PHƯƠNG – YouTube

“Yêu đời yêu người” performed by Elvis Phương and Lê Hựu Hà, two former members of the Phoenix band.
Video credit: Hải Trịnh


4. The City Hall of Cholon – now a top-notch medical university


Cholon City Hall
The City Hall of Cholon around 1900
Image credit: manhhai

You may be wondering why the former name of Hồ Chí Minh City Hall had the same name, Xã Tây (meaning the area of the French), as a market in Cholon, which is 6 kilometres in between. That was because Cholon used to have its own city hall

As mentioned above, in the 19th century, Saigon and Cholon were two separate metropolises. The City Hall of Cholon was built in 1889, and together with adjacent buildings such as the Inspection Bureau, The Drouet, Maternity and Municipal Hospitals, it was part of the French Quarter in Cholon. Today, the three hospitals are still standing and known as Phạm Ngọc Thạch, Hùng Vương, and Chợ Rẫy Hospitals respectively.

University of Medicine and Pharmacy at Ho Chi Minh City
The campus of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy at Hồ Chí Minh City
Image credit: Anh Tuấn Hồ

In 1925, when the City Hall was destroyed, The back part of the area was used as a marketplace. The market still opens today by the name of Xã Tây Market though the City Hall, or Dinh Xã Tây as the locals called it, is no more.

In the area on the front, a medical training centre was built during the Vietnam War. Now, that medical training centre is the University of Medicine and Pharmacy at Ho Chi Minh City and its affiliated hospital.


5. The original Cholon marketplace – now a post office


Old Market - Cholon
The original market before being burned down in a fire.
Image credit: manhhai

Cholon, literally meaning The Large Market, is now well known as the Chinatown of Saigon. In fact, the name derived from the market established by the Chinese Vietnamese when they first settled here. However, this market has long been replaced by a post office.

Many people assume this name is derived from the present-day Bình Tây Market, the biggest market in town. However, Bình Tây Market was is not on the original site of the original Cholon market.

Binh Tay Market
Bình Tây Market today is the symbol of Cholon.
Image credit: Pháp Luật

In the 17th century, there were already some small communities of Chinese settled in the area of Cholon after fleeing from China to protest the new Qing Dynasty. They named their new land 堤岸 (Đê Ngạn). 

The population of Cholon rose rapidly after heaps of people had moved from Phố Island in Biên Hòa, Đồng Nai to Đê Ngạn due to the conflict between the Tây Sơn army and Nguyễn Ánh’s forces.

Saigon - Cholon Map 1900
A 1900 map showing Saigon and Cholon as two separate metropolises
Image credit: manhhai

People started to form a marketplace to meet the local demand for goods. Compared to Quán Market (also known as Tân Kiểng Market) of the Vietnamese, this market was bigger, so it was called Chợ Lớn. 

The name Cholon was adapted by the Vietnamese to refer to the Chinatown area, while the locals still used the name 堤岸 or Thầy Ngòn. According to scholar An Chi, 堤岸 or Thầy Ngòn was actually an alternative Chinese rendition of the name Saigon besides 西貢 (Tây Cống / Xấy Cung).

District 5 Post Office
District 5 Post Office was built on the site of the old market.
Image credit: Thuận Hòa Nguyễn

In 1928, a Chinese Vietnamese merchant named Quách Đàm (郭琰) used his own money to build a new market after the old one was razed to the ground in a fire. In 1930, the new market opened and became today’s Bình Tây Market. On the site of the old market, people built a new building which is now the District 5 Post Office.


6. The Turtle Citadel


Map of Saigon 1790
The 1790 map of Saigon with a clear aerial view of the Turtle Citadel. You can also spot the Chinese community (which would be Cholon later) to the top left of the map, credited as Bazar Chinois (French for Chinese Market).
Image credit: manhhai

One of the biggest structures that was destroyed in Saigon was the Turtle Citadel. This was an important citadel that helped the Nguyễn emperors defend the city for quite a long time. 

In 1790, at the site of Tân Khai Village, which may covers Districts 1 and 3 today, Lord Nguyễn Ánh had Olivier de Puymanel, Théodore Lebrun, and Pigneau de Béhaine design a citadel to fit the urban plan done by general Trần Văn Học. 

Because all these designers were Westerners, their design imitated the European Vauban design with star-shaped walls and fortifications at each point. As the citadel had 8 sides, the locals named it Thành Bát quái (the Baigua Citadel) or Thành Quy (the Turtle Citadel) after the animals considered sacred in local culture.

Turtle Citadel Relic
Relics of the Turtle Citadel found at the La Grandière – Catinat corner (Lý Tự Trọng – Đồng Khởi corner today) in January 1926.
Image credit: Thanh Niên

Everything changed in 1833 when general Lê Văn Khôi and his troops rebelled against the government of Emperor Minh Mạng, who was Nguyễn Ánh’s son. At the peak of this uprising, Lê Văn Khôi occupied the Turtle Citadel. After two years of fighting, multiple generals of the Nguyễn Dynasty defeated Lê Văn Khôi’s force with their large well-trained troops and clever tactics. In 1836, Minh Mạng decided to destroy the whole citadel.

If the citadel remained, its side walls would have bordered Đinh Tiên Hoàng Street to the east, Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa Street to the west, Lê Thánh Tôn Street to the south, and Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street to the north. The present-day Notre Dame Cathedral area would be the centre of this citadel.


7. The Phoenix Citadel


Turtle and Phoenix Citadels
The position of the Phoenix (smaller, right) and Turtle (left) Citadels.
Image credit: Tuổi Trẻ

After having the Turtle Citadel destroyed, Emperor Minh Mạng approved the construction of a new citadel near the old one. This new construction was named Thành Phụng, or The Phoenix Citadel, occupying only a quarter of the Turtle Citadel’s total area.

French attacked Saigon 1859
The French siege of Saigon in 1859. This gate of the Phoenix Citadel would have been on Lê Duẩn Street today if it had not been destroyed.
Image credit: Thanh Niên

Unlike the Turtle Citadel, the Phoenix Citadel only had four sidewalls and four fortifications. On 17th February 1959, French and Spanish joined forces to attack the city and promptly occupied the Phoenix Citadel. 

Realising the strategic location of this citadel, not long after, they demolished it to make room for colonial buildings such as the Infantry Barrack (now the University of Social Sciences and Humanities and the University of Pharmacy).

Phoenix Citadel, Norodom Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Turtle Lake
The Phoenix Citadel (right) as drawn in a city plan in 1881. You can also spot the Norodom Palace (later Independence Palace), Notre Dame Cathedral in this plan.
Image adapted from manhhai

If the citadel had not been annihilated, the Phoenix Citadel would have bordered Nguyễn Du, Mạc Đĩnh Chi, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm Streets today. The building of Hồ Chí Minh City Television would have been surrounded by four citadel walls.


Saigon’s lost landmarks


Saigon Master Plan 1890
The master plan of Saigon in 1890. This plan is displayed at Hồ Chí Minh City Hall.
Image credit: manhhai

We introduce these lost landmarks to offer you can have a clearer understanding of how the city has changed over its short history. 

Thinking about how the city may have looked very different from what it is now had history taken a different turn may make your trip around the city more interesting and insightful.

Also check out:


Cover image adapted from manhhai,  manhhai, and manhhai

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